This sermon was preached at St. Michael’s in Breinton and at Holy Trinity in Hereford on Sunday 18th Feb’ 2018 – the first Sunday in Lent. It’s based on the reading for that day – Mark 1 9-15. As ever it owes a not inconsiderable amount of inspiration and direction from William Barclay and this book in particular.
It’s worth pointing out that this sermon has two possible endings. One, clean and simple – the other requiring the congregation to stand and to reaffirm their baptismal vows. At both St. Michael’s and at Holy Trinity the vicar at each felt that this would be too much and so I didn’t do it (local context is everything) but in future I’m going to try this.
One piece of feedback from the day – “It’s a great sermon on believers baptism’ – yes it is – I’ve not done at all well in working through how infant baptism plays into being claimed in a knowing way for the individual and next time around I’ll work on this.
It’s hard I think to picture the baptism of Jesus. I don’t mean actually picturing it happening – I mean trying to figure out why Jesus needed baptising in the first place. Baptism then was about being cleansed of your sins – John’s baptisms were about repentance – for those who wished to express their determination – for those who wished to choose – to put those sins behind them. But if Jesus was sinless, why did he seek out John to be baptised?
For Jesus – just as it is for us now – His baptism was a time of decision. A moment when He left behind the life in Nazareth and turned to face His ministry in the world. Jesus knew that when John emerged – the one who would point to him – his time had come to make his decision. When summoned by God, he faced the world.
This is a powerful moment – this moment of decision that echoes down the ages to us now.
When we baptise people, we introduce the service using these words:
Our Lord Jesus Christ has told us
that to enter the kingdom of heaven
we must be born again of water and the Spirit,
and has given us baptism as the sign and seal of this new birth.
Here we are washed by the Holy Spirit and made clean.
Here we are clothed with Christ,
dying to sin that we may live his risen life.
As children of God, we have a new dignity
and God calls us to fullness of life.
In our baptism – just as with Jesus’ baptism – we turn to face God – we make a decision to do so and our baptism is a visible sign of that decision. That baptism gives us our new identity and in that moment, Christ reaches for us, Christ claims us, Christ equips us, and Christ makes us new. Born again in Him.
We are made Christians in the image of Jesus. We now clothed in a new identity. Looking to Christ we have to try to understand how we now use that identity throughout our new lives. Each and every day we must consider – do we sit in ease and comfort and only identify with those who share that ease and comfort? Or do we reach for the more difficult identity? Do we sit in our ease and comfort and identify with the poor and the downtrodden? Do we choose to identify with a movement that is not for our own sake, but for the sake of others? Do we take our new identity in Christ and use it as He did? Do we identify with the sacrifice of Christ?
In our new identity we are claimed by God. In our reading from Mark as Jesus emerges from the water the Spirit descends, and a voice is heard to say ‘You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased’ – for Mark this was not some huge public declaration but a quiet approval, a quiet claiming of Jesus by God. A personal and deep connection that all of us received in our own baptism.
We are claimed by God.
Just let that sink in.
We are claimed by God.
Not once, not just in the moment of baptism but each and every time we receive the sacrament, each and every time that Christ reaches for us through the sacraments…
….we are claimed by God.
We are equipped each and every time we are claimed by God. We are equipped with His love and with his compassion and with his righteousness.
The image of the dove descending with this message was not chosen by accident. In both Luke and Matthew, we’re told of John’s message – it was one of consuming fire, of terrible sifting, of the axe at the root of the tree. But from the very start of Jesus ministry the Spirit is identified as the dove – a picture of gentleness.
Jesus will conquer, but it will be a conquest of Love, not fire.
And so… Jesus is claimed by God, filled with His gentle dove-like love. And immediately he is cast out by the Spirit – this gentle dove-like Sprit – into the Wilderness! Not just sent… but thrust! This gentle love has a steel edge. This gentle love will push us into the wilderness to make us stronger.
That’s an odd image isn’t it… sent out into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan… to be tested in so many ways. But when you think about it – it makes sense.
When I was a boy playing rugby I was in the second team. And I was good… I was pretty good. I was towards the top of the second team… so what does my rugby teacher do? He doesn’t put me in the third team where I will run easily and get soft, he doesn’t leave me where I am… he pushes me up into the first team where I will be tested, where it’ll be hard work, where I will be pushed and pulled and hurt and challenged and at the end of it… I will be strong. I will be a better rugby player.
This is what the Spirit demanded of Jesus. This time in the wilderness being tested, being made strong, putting the steel edge on that Love. Making it stronger, making it more durable, giving it a tenacity that endures and endures and endures – that is the Spirit’s gift to us during Lent.
Not a fast of hardship, not a test of piousness, but a tempering of our strength. An opportunity to grow stronger in our Love, stronger in our faith, stronger in our identity in Christ which is given to us in baptism and in the sacrament.
And that’s SO hard. It takes blood, sweat and tears. It takes endurance, tenacity and a depth of love we may not even realise we have. But we can do it, for we are not alone!
Mark tells us: …’and the angels waited on him’ – And they wait on us…. Even more, Jesus is there for us in our temptations and in our struggles and we are waited on by the Spirt, by Jesus, by the Father and by the whole company of Heaven and there is NOTHING on earth that can defeat that. There is nothing that can stand against Jesus conquest of Love.
And so, we have learnt that in our baptism we turned to face Christ, we made a decision to turn away from evil, and in that re-birth of water and of the Spirit we were made anew, given a new identity in Christ that compels us to Love in his name – a gentle love, edged with steel that stands for the poor, the week and the oppressed. A love that holds the hand
of a dying a friend and a love that stands in front of somebody being beaten and says ‘no more’.
Jesus was not left to fight the battle alone – and neither are we.
END SERMON HERE OR CONTINUE IF IT FEELS RIGHT
Let’s remember our baptism now. Even if we were too small to remember it, let’s re-affirm our baptismal vows…. The answer to each of these questions is – we will!
Let’s try that…. After me – we do!
Do you reject the devil and all rebellion against God?
Do you renounce the deceit and corruption of evil?
Do you repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour?
Do you turn to Christ as saviour?
Do you submit to Christ as Lord?
Do you come to Christ, the way, the truth and the life?
Then we are all claimed by Christ! Go out into the wilderness this lent, face your temptations and be made strong by the steel edged love of the Holy Spirit.